NEW PORT RICHEY
The sunflowers are a sudden delight, offering a welcoming patch of brightness for those who round the walkway leading to the rows of beige portable classrooms on the Longleaf Elementary campus. Planted mostly by fifth-graders' hands in the early fall and again in the spring, the flowers' sunshiny faces have become a mainstay in the butterfly wing plot that was carved out for free three years ago by the folks at Landscape Creations.
They never cease to amaze and brighten every one's day, said Mary Keane, the teacher who was responsible for bringing the planting project to Longleaf. Really now, who can't help but crack a smile or at least feel a little bit lighter when passing the crowded rows standing lanky and tall by the thousands?
Especially if you had something to do with them being there.
"Planting them was really fun," said fifth-grader Jessica Nelson. "It was fun to watch them grow each day, and now they've sprouted into beautiful sunflowers."
This year's first bloom came Oct. 29, which was "a really cool thing," said Jessica's classmate, Nathan Stalling, because it also happened to be Keane's birthday.
They've been popping open ever since.
"Sometimes classrooms of students come to sit in the grass and read books by them," said Keane, who was recently honored by her peers as Longleaf's Teacher of the Year.
The sunflowers attract all sorts of things: birds, butterflies, bees, worms, snails, some really cool bugs and brown bunnies that came to nibble at the tender young seedlings before they were warded off with Keane's homemade concoction of hot sauce, eggs, water and dishwashing soap.
The blooms come in all sizes, from small to big to mammoth. Some are different colors: Here and there are blotches of burgundy or white sprinkled in with the mostly yellow mass.
Then there's the giant, genetic mutation one.
"One stock has like 30 buds on it," said fifth-grader Matthew Johns. "The petals are huge and silly."
Some of the flowers sprouted from seeds brought back from a traveler's vacation in Greece. Others are from a friend's garden in Vermont.
Most are descendents of the flowers Keane planted about eleven years ago when she was a teacher at Mittye P. Locke Elementary.
It was there where Rebecca Mohrle, a colleague with a real green thumb, began coaching Keane in the fine art of horticulture. Keane was eager to dig in and so she learned how to garden and even created a wonderful organic vegetable garden for her students to tend. For some it was the first time they thrust their hands in the dirt to nurture new life.
The sunflowers became a favorite of Keane's. They were bright and beautiful and especially handy when it came to teaching students about plant science or how to measure things in inches, feet and yards.
"You can show them the root, the stem, the stalk the petal," Keane said. "Here it all is."
Students learned about the sunflowers' use in cosmetics, shampoos and oil for cooking. They learned about things like pollination and photosynthesis and that even when a flower dies, it sprouts new growth: the circle of life.
Now some are beginning to wilt and bend, and so it is time for them to be harvested. One flower will produce an abundance of seeds, some that will be counted for a lesson in multiplication. Some will be roasted and eaten. Others will be dried and stored for a future crop to be grown at the school.
And others will go home with students.
Hopefully they will be planted there.